UAW mum about tribal Casino War tactics

The election victory by the United Auto Workers to represent dealers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino will lead to stepped up efforts to organize other Indian-run casinos in the United States, a top union official said.

With union membership at historically low levels, organized labor sees the profitable and growing number of casinos as fertile territory to increase its presence.

“I do think this will embolden workers at tribal casinos around the nation,” said Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the UAW in Detroit.

She would not say whether the union is working on other casino organizing drives.

The union victory November 24, following a campaign that raised issues such as pay, health insurance and cigarette smoking by casino customers, was the first since a federal court ruled earlier this year that the National Labor Relations Act applies to tribal casinos. The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected arguments by a California tribe that as a sovereign government, it should not be subject to federal labor rules.

The 1,289-852 vote by Foxwoods workers to establish a union “certainly gives momentum,” Bob Madore, director the UAW’s Region 9, which covers New England, Puerto Rico and part of New York, said Monday.

Union officials are now turning their attention to negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, seeking ideas from Foxwoods workers and forming a negotiating committee, he said.

“It took us six months to get this campaign together. What comes later comes later. We need to focus on a contract,” Madore said.

The Mashantucket Pequots, who operate the casino, will file objections to the election with the National Labor Relations Board, tribal spokesman Bruce MacDonald said. Details on the objections were not available, he said.

The federal agency certifies union representation elections before contract talks begin.

Executives at the nearby Mohegan Sun casino, owned by the Mohegan Indian tribe, say they are not worried about a union organizing drive there.

Mohegan Sun Chief Executive Mitchell Etess said the casino and its workers have an “outstanding relationship.”

Lee H. Adler, who teaches employment law at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, said the UAW’s win at Foxwoods could speed up efforts by unions to organize Indian-run casinos.

“It will certainly increase the unions that are interested in organizing the casinos,” he said. “Whether it will result in more casinos getting organized will in part depend on the first contract, how Foxwoods responds and what the union learns from its organizing campaign.”

Getting a contract could be difficult, Adler said.

“Depending on Foxwoods’ position, getting a first contract is not as easy just because you win an election,” he said.

Employers have sometimes ended union recognition if a contract has not been negotiated within a year, Adler said.

Nationally, union representation last year was 12 percent of the work force, down from 12.5 percent the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The union membership rate has steadily declined from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the federal agency said.

In contrast, tribal gambling has grown into a $22 billion-a-year industry with casinos in 28 states. About 250,000 people, mostly non-Indians, work at the nation’s 400-plus tribal casinos.

The Communications Workers of America represents about 1,200 workers at two tribal casinos in California, and the Teamsters union is seeking to organize workers at an Indian casino in Michigan.

Jeff Farmer, director of organizing for the Teamsters in Washington, D.C., said the federal court decision in February to apply federal labor law to Indian-run casinos was an important ruling, but does not affect the union’s strategic organizing plan that targets key industries it represents, such as trucking.

“This is a hugely lucrative industry, hugely profitable,” he said. “I think the goal is to have middle class jobs that can sustain a family.”


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